The College Essay Formula Has Expired

We can do better than a humble brag

Paul Greenberg


Illustration by Paul and Felix Barman

As we approach the end of 2022, I’ve asked a few people whose words and wisdom I deeply respect to share what’s been on their minds. Here is the poet, educator and hip hop artist Paul Barman with some thoughts about his year’s biggest challenge: helping a son apply to college.

December 2022. college application deadlines. The end of the year. And with AI, the end of any need for human beings to engage with formulaic essays. Once again, the purpose of education comes into grave question. Why should we be trained to produce in similar paradigms? How can we facilitate unique expression? When will sparkling morning dew eclipse the newest bright and shiny cyborg? As today’s American high school seniors upload one last essay, contact one last essay consultant, and have one more argument with their parents, I see a future where college interviews are no longer optional, society sees measurable value in analytic education, and debt is canceled. Imagine if the white hot resources applied to application hysteria were rerouted in service of the planet.

I reject the premise that my college essay should highlight what makes me different.

It should be self-evident by now that our similarities unite us.

Vertebrates on Earth are in decline.

We should be well past uniting as humans, uniting with all who have a spine.

High school guidance counselors across the country are advising seniors like me not to talk about COVID and quarantine because everyone else experienced it too.

That is precisely why we should talk about it.

Why should I talk about my passion for music and its ability to unite all the components of the brain, its power to bring people together across the world, if my intention is just to grab the spotlight in the fashion of an archaic twentieth century pop star?

Why should I highlight my experience as a leader if my goal is to compete in such a way as to set myself apart?

These experiences aren’t just humble brags. If I’m fortunate enough to gain admittance to your school, I will be looking for ways to improve the lives of our people whether sanctioned…



Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World